« Have you heard about 3ich Tounsi? » Thus began an over-the-phone survey in a call to a colleague one morning in August. The initiators of 3ich Tounsi are determined to measure the impact of their operations on the Tunisian public through a poll, a slew of questions posed in less then five minutes: « How did you hear about it? », « What is your name? », « How old are you? », « What domain do you work in? ». An approach that reveals impressive organization and long-term ambitions. The 3ich Tounsi campaign has grown in remarkable magnitude over the course of the past few months.

3ich Tounsi at the marketplace in Mellassine on June 28, 2018. Photo credit: 3ich Tounsi Facebook page

Created in April, the association 3ich Tounsi states that its objective is « to think and work so that the lives of Tunisian men and women become a happy experience ». The association gained tremendous visibility during the month of Ramadan, which coincided with the World Cup. Open-air projections of the Tunisian team’s games—at the ampitheatre in El Jem, at the marketplace in Mellassine, in Kef and at Rejim Maâtoug—enabled the organization to assemble thousands of people with a clearly substantial budget. The campaign also targeted millions of Tunisians through three-minute television ads aired on the Tunisian national TV, Attessia and El Hiwar Ettounsi during peak audience hours throughout the month of Ramadan, no small investment considering that the going rate for one minute of advertising on public television is estimated to be upwards of 8,000 dinars.

3ich Tounsi at the sports hall in Kef on June 23, 2018. Photo credit: 3ich Tounsi Facebook page

Political and financial opacity

Tens of thousands of dinars are spent for each event. The same goes for television ads, not to mention the high costs of organizing a poll. All evidence would seem to indicate that 3ich Tounsi disposes of consequential financial means. Questioned by Nawaat on the topic, Selim Ben Hassen, president of 3ich Tounsi, is annoyed by the « presumption of guilt that weighs upon anyone who does something » and proceeds to briefly explain the association’s funding: « 3ich Tounsi is funded entirely by its members, people who have the means to do so. We have fairly strict criteria for funding: individuals of Tunisian nationality, no foreign countries, no foreign funders, no dirty money and conflicts of interest ». In the meantime, Nawaat obtained documents showing that financial transactions relating to the association’s activities went through the personal account of Selim Ben Hassen. Moreover, concordant accounts from different operators contracted by 3ich Tounsi attest that some payments were even made in cash.

3ich Tounsi poster at Rejim Maâtoug. A large temporary installation was set up there on June 18, 2018. Photo credit: 3ich Tounsi Facebook page

The funding question is not just about opacity, but about the motivations of the individuals « who have the means » and who believe in this initiative. When we ask association sponsor and member Olfa Terras Rambourg, she affirms that her involvement with 3ich Tounsi is « because I’m fed up with the humiliating situation that our country is in and because I don’t want to sit back with my arms crossed », and dismisses « for the moment » the possibility of her candidacy for a political position, in spite of rumors indicating otherwise. Rambourg’s case is all the more interesting given the notorious fact that her husband, Guillaume Rambourg, contributed to financing for Emmanuel Macron’s campaign in 2017.

Olfa Terras Rambourg at the projection of the Tunisia-Panama game in Mellassine. Photo credit: 3ich Tounsi Facebook page

Indeed, an article in Libération very clearly explains the role played by Guillaume Rambourg in mobilizing French citizens working in London for the Macron campaign. On this point, she responds, « My husband liked him because he proposed to explode the system. Personally, I’m not interested in French politics ». When we make the observation that MacronLeaks nevertheless mentions her name on the list of Macron campaign donors, she remarks, « Accounting for contributions to candidates is done by household, so it’s normal that my name also shows up ». But after verifying that French law allows for a maximum of two contributions per household, it does seem quite possible that Rambourg herself participated in financing the campaign. And as algorithmic chance would have it, one of the recommended groups for those who join the Facebook group 3ich Tounsi is none other than that of Macron supporters in Tunisia.

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Against the locked-up system of elites in power

The choice of locations where 3ich Tounsi events are held is not a fruit born of chance. Videos preceding these events clearly convey the idea underlying them: we go where « they » do not, we do where « they » do not. It remains to be known who « they » are and why this association is concerned by them. Answering the question « Who are « they »? » Selim Ben Hassen reaches far back in time: « they » are elites in power as far back as Tunisia’s Beylical era: « The system is totally locked politically. It only benefits a minority which divides the cake amongst itself ». He adds that « 3ich Tounsi was formed by a group of Tunisians who believe that the situation can’t continue as it is, and who are trying to see how we can unlock the system and break the economic, political and social status quo ».

Selim Ben Hassen, next to rapper Ferid El Extranjero, invited as speaker and performer to the « Ila Mata? » talk organized by 3ich Tounsi in Kasserine, April 2018. Photo credit: 3ich Tounsi Facebook page

And yet this desire is carried by individuals who are generally closer to the privileged classes than the disadvantaged ones. Ben Hassen, himself a distant relative of Bourguiba and graduate of Sciences Po in Paris, remarks in response to this observation that « He who has the conviction has the initiative », in the same breath disparaging « elites today who discuss the good Tunisian people at the Institut Français ». As far as Olfa Terras Rambourg is concerned, « Just because we aren’t poor doesn’t mean we don’t have the right to want to change something in people’s lives », and, as she points out, « Marx, Engels and Lenin were all the sons of bourgeois ». For Ben Hassen, the closure of this system resulted in the disappearance of the social ladder. Using the example of entrepreneurship, he shares his understanding of how things work: « Some people have the luxury of trying because they dispose of unlimited resources and a family network, while others are told « no », sometimes with good intentions, for fear that they will fail ». The picture drawn out is clear: the problem is the government. Therefore, the problem is political.

Non-profit approach to trying a hand at politics

Ben Hassen tends to dodge questions regarding the political nature of 3ich Tounsi. Here, he limits his response to « Today, we are an association. We have the right to express political convictions. If there is an echo, we will reflect on how to pursue involvement ». But considering the financial resources mobilized and tone of discourse used, there can be no illusions: the objective is an electoral one. What form this might take remains to be known. According to Selim Ben Hassen, long reflection and prospection have preceded action. The latter, affirms the president of 3ich Tounsi, is based on a study concerning Tunisians « in order to better know them and their aspirations ». Some of the results came from the association’s first events called « Ila Mata? », debates in the form of short presentations by the speakers, a sort of roaming Ted Talks covering themes like « Are Tunisians comfortable in Tunisia? », « Are we clandestine in our own country? ».

Olfa Terras Rambourg at the « Ila Mata? » talk in Kasserine, April 2018. Photo credit: 3ich Tounsi Facebook page

The study, however, is private, and Nawaat was denied access to the results. Ben Hassen will only give a general outline: « We wanted to know what makes up the Tunisian specificity. We wanted to rebuild the basis of what solutions might be proposed to Tunisians by studying the relationship of Tunisians with themselves, with society, the law or even government. Our premise is that the development model was copied from European countries and was imposed as a forced march here ».

Still, the movement’s ideological position remains undecided. In the political scramble heading into legislative and presidential elections set for the end of 2019, where does 3ich Tounsi stand? Are we really looking at a radically different political option? This much is difficult to say in the absence of concrete political proposals. Uncertainty prevails: while on the one hand Ben Hassen affirms drawing inspiration from different political experiences of the Left in Latin America, the discourse used by 3ich Tounsi edges on a managerial vision of politics, one where ideology is disguised as a promise of efficacy.